Jayantha Dhanapala: prime mover of nuclear disarmament | Sunday Observer

Jayantha Dhanapala: prime mover of nuclear disarmament

4 June, 2023
Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala at the UN Headquarters in New York
Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala at the UN Headquarters in New York

Distinguished Sri Lankan diplomat, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, who died in Kandy on May 27 at the age of 85, brought glory to his native land as one of the prime movers of nuclear disarmament when he was United Nations (UN) Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs. He also had the larger objective of bridging the yawning gap between the rich and the poor countries or between the Global North and Global South in decision making at the UN.

When he became Sri Lanka’s official candidate for the post of UN Secretary General in February 2006, he told this writer that under his stewardship, the UN would respect the sovereignty of nations and not be overbearing in its dealings with weaker countries.

Asked specifically how he would tackle the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, Dhanapala said that the UN’s role should depend on what Sri Lanka wanted it to do. On how he planned to tackle the United States, the world’s only Superpower which seemed to dominate the UN, Dhanapala said that the US was actually working for “consensus” on a number of issues before the UN.

“The UN needs the US and the US needs the UN. No single country can manage international relations on its own,” he said.

Dhanapala portrayed himself as a “pragmatic and apolitical moderate” and as a “consensus builder”, and pointed out that Sri Lanka itself had been a long-standing votary of consensus in international affairs. Having been Under-Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs between 1998 and 2003, he had learnt to be a “realist”, he said.

Realism would help him adopt a practical and realistic approach to UN reform, a question he hoped to grapple with as the Secretary General. Asked whether he thought that the Veto (held by the five founding Permanent Members of the Security Council UK, USA, France, Russia and China) was an anachronism in a democratic world in which countries were demanding equality, he admitted that it was “exceedingly difficult” to do away with the veto.

“We have to be realistic. The UN is but a combination of pragmatism and idealism. As Dag Hammarskjold (former UN Secretary General) said, the UN can save people from going to hell, but not take them to heaven.”

Stressing the importance of finding lasting and realistic solutions to internal conflicts, the scholar-diplomat said that 50 percent of the countries which had “resolved” conflicts tended to suffer a “relapse”. Quick fix solutions often forced on weak countries by the powerful ones would come unstuck.

Contribution to disarmament

After carrying out over 2,000 detonations in callous defiance of global concerns, no officially nuclear-armed State is now conducting nuclear tests (However, undeclared nuclear powers such as North Korea still test nuclear-capable missiles). This remarkable change came about due to the relentless efforts of a number of dedicated UN officials, among them Under Secretary General for Disarmament Dhanapala.

He was an inveterate champion of nuclear disarmament for the better part of his diplomatic career. He was also a firm believer in its achievability. “A world free of nuclear weapons can and must be possible in my lifetime,” he once said publicly.

Delivering the Olaf Palme Memorial Lecture in 1999, held in honour of the assassinated Swedish Premier, Dhanapala said that the annual budget of the UN’s Department for Disarmament Affairs was roughly half the value of one fighter jet. Even if a fraction of what was being spent on arms acquisition was spent on social and economic development, the world would be rid of many of its pressing problems, he said.

Dhanapala wanted the world to pitch for “total disarmament”, far-fetched though it might seem. The mitigation of the arms build-up was not enough for him. “We must not seek managed proliferation, nor what might be called the game of arms control but disarmament as the destiny for all Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD),” he said.

But the powerful nations were not ready to give up their nuclear weapons or even stop testing the weapons in their stockpile. Nationalistic impulses and mutual distrust lay at the root of the reluctance to take steps towards disarmament. The situation is no different today.

SIPRI Report

In 2022, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in which Dhanapala once played a pivotal role, reported that despite a marginal decrease in the number of nuclear warheads in 2021, nuclear arsenals were expected to grow over the coming decade. The nine nuclear-armed states—the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea continued to modernise their nuclear arsenals. Although the total number of nuclear weapons declined slightly between January 2021 and January 2022, the number would probably increase in the next decade, SIPRI said.

Of the total inventory of an estimated 12, 705 warheads at the start of 2022, about 9,440 were in military stockpiles for potential use. Of those, an estimated 3,732 warheads were deployed with missiles and aircraft, and around 2,000—nearly all of which belonged to Russia or the USA—were kept in a state of high operational alert, the SIPRI said.

Dhanapala, who was a member of the Group of Eminent Persons (GEM) set up in September 2013 to promote the implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), tried to make the powers that be realise that the humongous global challenges before the world, such as Climate Change, terrorism, and inequality, could not be met by the use of nuclear weapons.

Though these pleas fell on deaf ears, Dhanapala did not lose hope because the nuclear disarmament movement was not entirely without achievements. The signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was an example of success.   

When US President Bill Clinton assumed office in January 1993, one of the first issues he confronted was the future of US nuclear testing. On August 6, 1985, then Soviet leader and peacenik Mikhail Gorbachev had declared a nuclear test moratorium. Despite any lack of reciprocation from the Ronald Reagan administration in the US, the Soviet moratorium had a substantial impact on Western public opinion. Encouraged by this, Gorbachev extended the moratorium through 1986. But pressure from the Soviet military forced him to retract.

Public pressure against nuclear testing in Kazakhstan in Soviet Asia, where the Soviets had been testing, forced Moscow to shift the testing site to the North Pole, only to face international opposition. In October 1991, just before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev announced another year-long testing moratorium. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, confirmed the extension and called upon the US to reciprocate.

The US Congress then introduced legislation to halt US nuclear testing for one year. In October 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed it, albeit reluctantly.

The law required a complete halt to US nuclear testing by September 30, 1996, if other countries stopped testing by then. President Clinton adopted that goal, and after more than two years of intensive multilateral negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature on September 24, 1996. President Clinton and 65 other leaders signed on the first day.

But three countries tested nuclear weapons beyond that date. India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices in May 1998, and North Korea conducted six tests between 2006 and 2017. China first tested a device on October 5, 1993 and the last test took place on July 29, 1996, two months before the CTBT opened for signature. France also decided to conduct a final series of six tests in 1995 and 1996 and then stopped.

The United States, Russia, and the UK did not test. To date, 186 states have signed and 174 have ratified the CTBT. India, Pakistan and North Korea still have not signed, and only 36 have ratified the Treaty. Therefore, while there have been significant successes, disarmament has a long way to go.

In his writings on disarmament, Dhanapala emphasised the need for well-crafted treaties, treaty ratification and verification of disarmament claims. Writing in the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy in 1990, Dhanapala said: “Compliance with treaty obligations and the durability of treaties are important aspects to be considered. The present trend is towards detailed provisions for verification to be embodied in treaties.”  

Political relationships among States and the process of treaty negotiations are also key aspects in the disarmament process, he said. Emphasizing the need for political will, he declared in November 2001: “The key challenges ahead are twofold: to strengthen the political will to achieve disarmament goals, and to strengthen the rule of law to consolidate incremental achievements.”

National sovereignty

“The efficacy and durability are finally determined by the international political climate. Article XV (2) of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) of 1972–2002 for example, provides for either party to withdraw from the Treaty, with due notice, in the exercise of its national sovereignty.

Such a provision sealed the fate of the 1979 US-USSR Treaty on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms’ or SALT II, which was not ratified although both parties signed it. By May, 1986, the United States announced that it no longer felt constrained by the SALT II limits.

As Paul Meyer, the Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, writing in the Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament in 2021 noted, Dhanapala emphasised public or society’s involvement in disarmament to put pressure on Governments. He called for the mobilisation of a “disarmament complex to take on the nuclear weapons complex”.  

Ambassador Dhanapala was one of the best diplomats produced by Sri Lanka and made a lasting impression in whatever position he held. Although he could have settled down anywhere in the world due to his diplomatic stature, he opted to live out his retirement in his native land, with the people he loved.